This is a very real question that we’ll have to try to answer in the near future.
Growing up, I had assumed zero. I guess I was wrong.
I don’t like quoting stats because highlighting a single data point within a pattern can be misleading. But 66 unarmed people were killed by the US police last year. Up from 48 the year before. I don’t know all of their stories. I haven’t seen all the body cam footage. But from what I have seen, something desperately needs to change.
I’ve known about the darker places of the internet for a long time. I’ve watched the Yakuza chop fingers off, I’ve watched public beheadings in the middle east, I’ve seen military executions, and I even watched a Boeing exec get fucked to death by a horse. I know what’s out there, but I don’t gravitate towards it. When I watch, I see moments of weakness. Moments of confusion. Moments of darkness. They inform, but they don’t inspire. This year, I watched more footage of people being killed than any other year, and most of that was body cam footage from police officers.
I don’t watch them expecting to make excuses for the police or the people they’re pointing guns at. I recognize that for all parties involved, it’s probably the most stressful moment of their entire lives and people don’t always perform well under pressure. What I try to do is understand what exactly is happening and how we could’ve avoided the loss of an innocent life.
In each video that I’ve seen, the person who was shot ‘reached’ for something. Sometimes it was the waistband, sometimes the back pocket, but in every case, there was a motion that suggested to the police officer that they were drawing a concealed weapon. That’s the moment where the officer went from pointing a weapon to taking an innocent life. I think that’s a moment worth exploring.
I’ve never faced a situation like that before. Perhaps it’s like pointing a rifle at a bear that’s getting closer and closer. You don’t want to kill the bear, but you know that if the bear notices you, it’ll likely charge, and you’re unlikely to survive. I always warn against making decisions out of fear. It tends to use the least intelligent parts of the brain. And I don’t think that analogy holds up anyways. You can’t have a dialogue with a bear. You don’t already have the bear in a position of submission. You don’t have the other tools necessary to de-escalate the situation. If that’s your state of mind in these situations, then they never should’ve let you out of basic training. But that’s not what I’m seeing when I’m watching these videos.
I’m seeing people who lack the emotional stability to carry firearms. I’m seeing people who have yet to grasp the value of a human life. I’m seeing people grappling with their own issues while pointing a gun at another human being. I’m seeing the fear that comes with a society who thinks everyone should be armed with deadly force. I’m seeing a bad problem made worse with military grade weaponry. I’m seeing a failure of training. I see a corrupt organizational culture. Worst of all, I see a problem that could be easily solved and that the police don’t seem motivated to fix.
All officers should be supported with an extensive psychological health program. That starts with a screening process designed to keep the trigger-happy cosplay-commandos out. Then it continues with ongoing evaluations and therapy. We need to accept that the damage officers take out there isn’t just physical. Rather than putting them through the shit and expecting them to sort things out on their own, we need to give them the tools and support necessary for them to stay healthy, inside and out. If an officer watches his partner get lit up, or is first on the scene to something you think you’d only see in a Rob Zombie movie, we need to be there for them. If that’s not something they can come back from, help them find something else. And this all needs to be done by a third party which doesn’t have to answer to the politics of law enforcement.
The failure of training seems to be the one that everyone agrees on, including the police. But it doesn’t seem to be working. Perhaps I can make a few suggestions. Don’t escalate the situation to the point where the person is so scared that they lose the ability to think rationally. Don’t ask them to do something that might make them reach for something, when you’re going to assume that what they’re reaching for is a weapon. I’d like to put that all under humanity 101 but here’s the real change I’d like to see: If there are multiple officers targeting the same suspect, all with weapons-hot, wait until you can see an actual weapon. You’re right, it’s only a split second between seeing the weapon and being shot at, but you should be trained to make that split second decision properly.
Mistakes will still be made. Waiting until you see the weapon might mean a few extra dead officers. But it’ll also mean that just about every single unarmed civilian who was murdered by a police officer this year would still be alive. That’s the trade off. A few brave souls who put their lives on the line so that the innocent may live in peace. That’s what you signed up for. That is your glory. That is your honor. Own it. That is the proud and noble history of law enforcement. What we’re seeing now is gang violence.
But that’s not going to change anytime soon. Especially with the commander and chief excited about deploying more military grade equipment into local municipalities. I can’t help but think that the general anxiety that the country is experiencing plays into this as well. Protests, riots, terrorism, political instability, cultural divisions… maybe everyone is a little on edge. There’s gotta be something else we can do.
I often say that if both people are looking for something reasonable, compromise is just a lack of imagination. I think this qualifies. Police officers would like to not be shot by a suspect who may or may not have a concealed weapon. Suspects who are trying to comply, would like to not be shot whether or not they have a concealed weapon on them. Police officers would like to not be at risk of being assaulted by a weapon as they try to place a suspect into custody. Suspects who are trying to comply would like to not be shot by an officer while being placed into custody. There’s always that risk that as soon as an officer takes his finger off the trigger, things go sideways. There’s always a chance that when the suspect makes an unexpected movement, things go sideways. So we need a way for officers to subdue suspects, without having to close the distance or take the finger off the trigger. Tranquilizer darts.
I’m not going to bother looking up what’s on the market right now that might work because I think that if this was going to be deployed, it would have to be a custom job. You’d need a compound that worked quickly, effectively, and left no side-effects. When you approach the scene, and you can’t determine whether or not the person has a weapon? Tell them that. Tell them to go belly down with their arms where you can see them, and that you’re gonna shoot them with a tranquilizer dart. When they wake up, they’ll be in cuffs in the back of a squad car and everyone can figure out what happened. Crazy junkie on bath salts? Tranq dart. Guy pulls a knife from 20 feet away? Tranq dart. In just about every scenario short of someone firing live rounds at you, tranq dart.
The other solution that’s crossed my mind is gender equality. The ratio of male to female officers in American law-enforcement is about 9:1. I can’t help but wonder if the boys in blue would be a little less trigger happy if there were a few more girls around. But women aren’t as big and strong as men, and etc., etc. True, but are we so sure that size and strength are the most important qualities of a law enforcement officer? Maybe thinking that size and strength are the most important qualities is an issue unto itself. If we saw a 1:1 ratio of men to women in law-enforcement, I can’t help but think that the police would see a dramatic improvement across the board. Reduced discrimination, reduced police brutality, and fewer shootings of unarmed civilians to start. Right now, I see police walking the streets like the foot soldiers of law-enforcement. In some of the uglier scenarios, they look like gang members protecting the turf of the police state. I can’t help but think that if we encouraged gender equality within the police, they might just find their way back to protecting and serving.